This complex question has baffled teachers, students, and parents for decades. Countless studies have been conducted on the value of homework. And this is a hot topic in every grade level.
Before we dive in, I want to share my background in education, so you know how important I find this debate. I have a master’s degree in educational technology and library media. I’ve taught eighth-grade reading, writing, science, and history, and high school English and creative writing. While teaching, I also coached volleyball and softball. And I currently teach a homeschool preschool co-op. I am passionate about inspiring children to discover the magic of learning.
So, do elementary school students really have to do their homework? To explore the answer to this question, I did some research, reflected on my own experience, and spoke with several teachers. The short and simple answer is this: most of the time. Read on as I explain when you should skip homework and why most homework is valuable.
I interviewed a kindergarten teacher, Tara Heinrich. She emphasized the importance of sleep over homework: “When it’s bedtime, put the homework away and tuck your kiddo in bed. Sleep should come first.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, decreasing your child’s sleep by even one hour affects their emotional functioning, behavior, and cognitive skills needed to perform in school. So, staying up late to do homework is counterproductive to your child’s academic success.
Prioritize Mental Health
Likewise, when homework becomes overly stressful, it has lost its value. Take a break, go for a walk (exercise helps the brain function better), and return to it later. Teaching your child how to problem solve, manage emotions, and ask questions is a part of the homework process. This often includes knowing when to take a breather and approaching the task in a different way later.
Taylor Burson, a fourth-grade teacher, echoed this advice: “If a kid is crying, frustrated, and arguing with their parents about math homework at night, that’s not good for anyone. Either I didn’t do my job well enough that day with that student, or their brain just needs a little more time to grasp the concept with me, in the classroom, with resources.”
This, however, does not mean that your child should quit whenever homework becomes difficult. When we are challenged, we learn the most. Children learn how to respond to challenges by first watching how their parents and other role models deal with challenges.
More to Consider
So, sleep and mental health should be prioritized above homework. But what about the stress your child may experience at school when the teacher collects the homework? (I told you this was a complex issue!) When you know your child didn’t complete homework, my advice is to email the teacher in advance, so they have a heads-up. Encourage your child to discuss it at an appropriate time with the teacher as well. Help your child prepare for the situation and plan ahead for next time.
The 10-Minute Rule
The National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association recommend 10 minutes of nightly homework per grade level. For example, a third-grade student should receive about 30 minutes of homework a night.
However, since everyone learns at different speeds, following this advice is easier said than done. Use the “10-minute rule” as a guide to help your family find a balance between school work, family time, sleep, and other activities. Striking the right balance is important. According to an article in U.S. News, too much homework can “negatively affect students’ views on school” and the learning process in general.
“I ask parents and students to spend no more than 30-40 min on homework Monday through Thursday, and I never assign homework over the weekends. I really try to respect family time at home, especially since I have three kids of my own,” Taylor Burson said.
Kindergarten teacher, Tara Heinrich, does not assign mandatory homework. Instead, she provides optional activities for families to do together that promote meaningful family time and reinforce skills being taught at school.
“As a team, we decided that it was way more important for our kiddos to go home and spend quality time with their parents,” she said. “In our weekly newsletters, we encourage parents to help their child showcase their skills through at-home activities such as drawing a picture and coming up with a story to go with it, finding items around the house that begin with the ‘M’ sound, or identifying shapes while building with blocks.”
Homework as a Conversation Starter
One of the benefits of homework, like Heinrich’s newsletters and suggested activities, is that it initiates a conversation about school between parents and their children. For example, if Sally is making a space model, her parents might take her stargazing or read a book with her about the planets. Or, if Sally has a spelling test on Friday, her parents can help her review while driving to soccer practice. Homework starts a dialogue and establishes a connection between school and home, and that alone makes it valuable.
Homework also teaches time management and responsibility, a skill that will become increasingly crucial to success at the secondary level. This is one of the reasons that Burson assigns homework: “Middle school and high school [teachers] assign a lot of homework, and I’ve seen kids get stressed out when they don’t know how to manage all of the assignments and due dates.”
Communication is Key
Burson encourages parents to write her a note when homework becomes too stressful: “When at home if the kid is crying or takes more than 30-40 minutes on math, I ask them to write me a note and call it a day.”
If your child is constantly overwhelmed with the amount of homework he or she is getting, this should be communicated directly with the teacher. The more information your teacher has, the more effectively you can work together to help your child succeed and enjoy school.
Be specific in your email, include a positive note, and ensure the teacher knows your willingness to help. Here’s a sample email to modify and make it fit your situation:
Good afternoon, Mrs. Shepard!
First, thank you for everything you do for Sally. She really enjoyed the field trip last week! I am emailing because, lately, she has felt overwhelmed with her homework, specifically math, but she insists on staying up late to get it all done. What can I do to better help her?
Thank you again for all your help.
If Nothing Else, Read!
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: Regularly reading with your children will positively impact every aspect of their life for the rest of their life—including their relationship with you.
In fact, research shows that reading out loud to your child, just 15 minutes a day, is the greatest thing you can do to prepare your child for learning.
Year after year, I’ve witnessed how much reading impacts students’ academic success in all subjects, along with their emotional intelligence, confidence, and social lives. Students who are not confident readers often begin to dislike school because struggling with this skill makes everything more difficult. This frustration is noticed by peers and weighs heavily on a child’s ability to learn and thrive. Make reading a non-negotiable part of your routine. Do it in a way that helps your child fall in love with reading and the special time you spend together. If you’re excited to read together, your enthusiasm will be contagious.
Heinrich encourages her students and parents to read together every day: “Something that is always on our ‘at home learning activities’ list is to read with your child or have your child read to you. The most important thing our kids can do at home is read!”
Wouldn’t it be great if we viewed homework as an opportunity to learn instead of an obligation? To achieve this goal, parents and teachers need to work together so that homework is meaningful and children see its value. We should regularly communicate that perfection is not the goal: Making mistakes and learning from those mistakes is when the real magic happens.